Good: great looking, comfort, engine sound and ferocity, decent quality, terrific off-road
Not so good: some cheap cabin parts, handling not quite at Cayenne levels
How many Maseratis have been sold in Ireland, so far this year? Go on - guess. Bearing in mind that the Italian brand had a record year for sales globally last year, shifting some 52,000 cars. Any ideas? I'll tell you: none. Zero. Zip. How about in 2017? None then, either. In 2016? Just the one.
Which is more than a little bit of a shame. It's bad for Fiat-Chrysler, which has earmarked Maserati for heavy investment and future big profits, obviously, but just bad in general that such a storied marque can't shift a single car in a market apparently in love with premium products.
Perhaps this will help. It's the Levante, Maserati's first-ever SUV, and since its introduction last year it has rapidly gobbled up around half of all Maserati sales. It's a direct rival to the likes of the Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5, but has one major advantage over those, and most of its other 4x4 rivals; it's gorgeous.
Now, I say that with the caveat that I'm speaking in relative terms. If sir-or-madam would like a Maserati that's truly, objectively, unquestioningly pretty, then sir-or-madam should direct themselves across the showroom floor to the Ghibli or Quattroporte saloons, or the GranTurismo coupe. By big 4x4 standards, though, the Levante is pretty pretty. It takes the grille and narrow lights from the Alfieri concept sports car and slaps them onto the face of a big SUV and yet somehow it works. Where its German (and Japanese) rivals are hulking and bulky, the Levante is slinky and sexy. Except around the rear three-quarters, where it all gets a bit generic, but I think we can forgive it that.
In the cabin, more of the same. Oh sure, the German cars are probably engineered to slightly tighter tolerances, but someone has clearly driven a prototype Levante headlong into the window of a shop called All The Leather And Carbon Fibre You Can Shake A Stick At. And liked the result. With the swathes of black and red leather, and artfully lacquered carbon-fibre, it does flirt dangerously with taste, but Italian chutzpah pulls it through. There are some glorious touches. The seats (wonderfully comfortable already) can be optionally fitted out with strips of hard-wearing silk upholstery, made specially for Maserati by iconic Italian tailors Ermenegildo Zegna, and the little almond-shaped clock sitting proud of the dash-top just looks gorgeous. The handsome analogue dials are also a reminder of some of what we've lost with the move to digital TFT screens.
There are some issues, though. Space is, slightly, one of them. The Levante's big, but its rear seat accommodation and boot volume are only about as good as that of a smaller BMW X3. Then there's the fixtures and fittings. Right after that superglue-covered jaunt through the All The Leather And Carbon Fibre You Can Shake A Stick At store-room, the Levante clearly took a sharp left and crashed into the Jeep parts-bin. For a hugely expensive car (there's no official Irish price, but the UK price would probably mean you'll need close to €140,000 to land one here) the Levante S is packing an awful lot of Grand Cherokee cast-offs. The Italians are making much noise about the updated infotainment system, but it's identical to the uConnect setup used in the Jeep Cherokee and Grand Cherokee, just with the screen coloured in Maserati blue. Ditto much of the switches and buttons - the headlight switch, starter button, column stalk (which actually dates back to Jeep and Chrysler's ill-fated marriage to Mercedes) and the screen between those pretty main dials are all lifted straight from much humbler Jeep products. It's an area in which the Levante, and Maserati in general, must try harder. Surely if Ferrari can build engines for Maserati (the Levante's V6 and the V8 found in the Quattroporte and GranTurismo are all built by Ferrari in Modena) then you would think that Maserati might also get access to Ferrari's excellent touchscreen infotainment system, or its column stalks? Heck, a Fiat 500S has a better infotainment screen than this.
However, let's turn attention to that engine, which at least sees Maserati back on much firmer ground. It's a 3.0-litre petrol V6 with twin turbos, and it develops a pretty senior 430hp, along with 580Nm of torque. And it sounds like a small earthquake is happening under that chamfered bonnet. It's noisy enough when you start it up in ICE (Increased Comfort and Efficiency) mode, all burbles and grunts, and basically sounds better and lovelier than most rival companies' V8s. Hit Sport mode, though, and extra baffles and valves open up until it starts to sound as if Placido Domingo is sitting in the back seat and has somehow shot himself in the foot with a staple-gun. Blimey, it's loud. And musical. And savage. And sonorous. And wonderful. And glorious. And I really want one of these in my house instead of a stereo.
It also has performance that can best be described, within the bounds of criminalising oneself, as brisk. This 2.1-tonne luxury SUV can crack off a 5.2-second 0-100km/h run, which, OK, will be well beaten by the (more expensive) Cayenne Turbo, but which feels pretty freaking fast on the public highway. The Levante lunges forward, belying its turbocharged nature with a steady shove of speed, rather than a sudden shunt. The eight-speed ZF automatic gearbox has never felt better, nor happier, than it does here, ripple-firing automated changes through, or responding rapidly to your inputs through the gorgeous alloy paddle shifters.
The Levante uses a four-wheel-drive system that sends 100 per cent of the power to the rear wheels, until it detects that the fronts can help a bit too, and there's side-to-side torque vectoring when you're in Sport mode. The result is a car that feels indecently quick, but also hugely confidence inspiring on a twisty, occasionally mud-strewn Irish mountain road.
It's not quite as sharp to drive as a Cayenne, however. Although the steering weights up rather nicely in Sport, it's not as good a steer as the Porsche, and the air suspension can't keep the body's motions under quite such tight control as you'd find in the Zuffenhausen product. There's quite a bit of body lean when cornering hard, although to its credit, the Levante never lurches when you change direction sharply. That said, the 'Skyhook' suspension set-up (theoretically designed to keep the body stable, as if suspended from a hook in the sky while the suspension works underneath) does a good job of the ride quality, which only really gets too firm at urban speeds. If it's not quite as good as the Porsche, then it is at least hugely satisfying and engaging to drive. And if the steering isn't quite perfect, the switch for 2018 to an electric-assisted rack does at least mean that Maserati has caught up with its rivals in terms of electronic driver assistance systems.
And it will do the off-road stuff too. I know everyone has a big 4x4 in their armoury now (or at least they will do once Ferrari, Rolls-Royce and, I assume, Morgan and Caterham catch up with everyone else), but it still seems incongruous to see that gorgeous trident badge slathered with muck. Initially, I thought Maserati was going to let us try the Levante out on a gravel track the likes of which you'd have easily pottered along in a diesel Focus, but eventually the going got properly tough, steep, muddy, slippery, waterlogged and tree-strewn. Yet the Levante, running on nothing more special than normal winter tyres, sloshed, scrabbled, climbed and descended with insouciant ease. If I'm being picky, I'd say that the hill descent control is slightly less smooth than that which you'd get in a Range Rover Sport, but how many owners will ever actually make the comparison?
Equally, how many will make the comparison between the Levante and any other rival? Clearly, the company is operating in that narrow window between Alfa Romeo below and Ferrari above, which doesn't give it a lot of wiggle room, and clearly you're only going to consider one if you're already thinking about buying an absolutely range-topping version of the BMW X5, Audi Q7, Cayenne, or Range Rover Sport. Still, the Levante is a car that deserves your attention, at the very least. Certainly not flawless, but when that magical engine comes on strong, it reminds you of what the others are missing...